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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C major Op.60 (1941)
Russian National Orchestra/Paavo Järvi
rec. Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory, 2014
Hybrid SACD/CD Surround/Stereo, reviewed in surround (DBi)
PENTATONE PTC5186511 SACD [72:59]

The Russian National Orchestra has been slowly building up a cycle of Shostakovich symphonies for Pentatone over the last ten years or more. Unusually, however, these recordings have not been made with just a single conductor. Instead Vladimir Jurowski conducted Symphonies 1 and 6; Yakov Kreizberg was responsible for numbers 5 and 9; Mikhail Pletnev, the orchestra’s founder, was at the helm for number 15; Paavo Berglund was entrusted with number 8 (PTC 5186 084); and Pletnev returned for number 11 (PTC 5186 076). Now Paavo Järvi offers, as the sixth instalment of the cycle, the ‘Leningrad’.

By a strange coincidence I came to this new release immediately after reviewing a fine new version of Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and I thought it would be interesting to experience Shostakovich’s Seventh, written in the midst of the Great Patriotic War in close proximity to Prokofiev’s symphony, which was composed as the Soviet Union was on the brink of victory over Hitler’s Germany, However, there may well be more to the ‘Leningrad’ than a response to the war time siege of that city. In his useful notes Franz Steiger draws on Solomon Volkov’s writings on Shostakovich, including the controversial posthumous Memoirs. As is well known the first three movements were written in besieged Leningrad before the composer was moved away for his own safety. However, Steiger reproduces quotations from the Memoirs from which it appears that the genesis of the Seventh precedes the start of the war between Germany and the USSR and that Shostakovich was seeking to commemorate in this score the citizens of Leningrad who fell victim to Stalin’s great purge.

The ‘Leningrad’ has been much criticised in certain quarters, not least for the famous – or infamous – eleven-fold repetition of the ‘Invasion’ theme during the first movement. Franz Steiger is right to aver that the symphony “is not necessarily one of Shostakovich’s strongest creations”. I don’t believe that it rivals the Eighth, Tenth or Thirteenth symphonies for depth of expression, nor does it match the originality of the Fourth. Nonetheless, it contains a great deal of music that is deeply felt and in a fine performance it should and can impress the listener by much more than mere decibel range. This reading by Paavo Järvi is such a performance.

He starts impressively, making the opening paragraphs urgent and purposeful. When, at 1:30, the music slows and relaxes into a more innocent and peaceful mood – recollecting happier times? – Järvi and the orchestra are sensitive; hereabouts there’s some excellent woodwind playing, not least from the flutes and piccolo. At the end of this passage there’s a particularly expressive violin solo. The first appearance of the so-called ‘Invasion’ theme (6:05) is very soft indeed, the side drum audibly present but only just so. Järvi gets the speed just right. Initially the variants on this theme sound innocent enough but before long, with the appearance of the brass and the addition of the piano to the bass ostinato, a note of menace is palpable. If one accepts the thesis suggested in the notes then perhaps what the composer is seeking to portray here is the insidious growth of dictatorship from seemingly benign origins to increasingly brutal repression. As this lengthy passage unfolds Järvi increases the tension very successfully indeed while the acute playing of the RNO ensures that the changes in harmonies and scoring register with the listener as each variant of the theme is presented. From 14:27, though the tempo itself is unaltered Järvi really starts to drive the music forward; there’s now horror in the music and the result is gripping. The climax (16:24 – 18:27) is shattering, both in terms of the sheer volume and the emotional intensity. One the tumult has eased the extended bassoon threnody (20:16 – 22:35) is delivered eloquently. Järvi manages the subdued end of the movement very well.

The opening pages of the second movement revisit the mood of the gentler episodes in the preceding movement and this episode is expertly done by the RNO. The tempo picks up significantly at 5:05 and the RNO woodwind have a convincing pungency in their tone. In this section (to 7:20) the playing is full of bite. There follows an extended bass clarinet solo (7:51 – 9:40) and here Shostakovich’s accompaniment of harp and flutes is spookily imaginative; here the players convey just the right atmosphere. Both the playing and conducting is excellent in this movement.

In the Adagio there’s great intensity in both the wind/brass chorales and the answering string laments. Järvi is very convincing in this section and obtains a committed response from the orchestra. The quicker episode (from 7:21) is bracing and propulsive and the climax (at 9:08) when the brass reprises the chorale motif has great power. Thereafter, as the music once more becomes tragically reflective Järvi and the RNO bring out the depth of feeling. In this movement I don’t think that Järvi plumbs the emotional depths as deeply as does Bernstein in his live Chicago recording (review) but I’m not sure he needs to: his relative restraint and sober approach brings its own rewards.

After the subdued transition from the Adagio the finale soon gets into its stride and Järvi ensures that the appropriate degree of urgency is present. At 5:53 the music becomes more weighty as it slows into what is in effect a triple-time funeral march. There’s a long build-up to the ending (from 10:34) and Järvi builds slowly but relentlessly. The last three minutes or so of the symphony achieve grandeur in his hands but he wisely ensures that the grandeur is not overblown; rhetorical pomposity is avoided and instead what we hear sounds like the triumph of the human spirit. Surely, that was what Shostakovich intended, whether he was seeking to portray a city’s response to foreign invasion or to home-grown dictatorship – or both.

This is a very fine account of the ‘Leningrad’. It seems to me that Paavo Järvi has completely got the measure of the score and throughout the seventy-minute span of the work I was consistently convinced by what I heard. It helps that in realising his conception of the symphony he’s supported by a very fine orchestra indeed. In reviewing the recording as a download my colleague, Dan Morgan was most complimentary about the PENTATONE sound. I am in complete agreement with Dan’s enthusiasm for the performance per se and in many respects I concur also with his view of the sound. There’s a very good left-to-right spread; the brass and percussion register imperiously, without appearing domineering; the many vast climaxes open up splendidly and there’s a very wide dynamic range. However, I do have a reservation, namely that the bass end of the string choir often doesn’t register with sufficient power and presence. In a Shostakovich symphony you need an ultra-firm foundation from the double basses with the cellos adding their weight too. Here I don’t get enough of that foundation for much of the time though one exception, happily, is at the start of the funeral-march episode in the finale. I’m very conscious indeed that recordings sound different on particular systems so it’s essential that intending purchasers read Dan’s comments about the sound as well as mine. I’m very conscious indeed that recordings sound different on particular systems so it’s essential that intending purchasers read Dan’s comments about the sound as well as mine.

There need be no reservations as to the quality of the performance and interpretation; this is now a leading choice for the ‘Leningrad’.

John Quinn

Footnote: We scrutinised this particular recording in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio after I wrote this review.

Another review ...

There is an unusual packaging decision for this issue: nowhere on the box and scarcely at all in the notes does one find the title Leningrad. There is a reason for this: Franz Steiger's notes start with the remark made by Shostakovich in Volkov's Memoirs, that "I have heard more nonsense about the seventh and eighth symphonies than about any of my other works." Steiger seeks to support the idea that this is a symphony against dictatorship, indeed a Requiem for all those who died under repression for whatever reason. By implication the name Leningrad is therefore a politically imposed decision and not the composer's own. Maybe this is part of what Shostakovich implies in his comment. For the doubtful purchaser, this is indeed the Leningrad.

We have had nearly 75 years to get over the fact that this dramatic and colourful symphony has a gigantic purple passage in the first movement, a passage that rivals Ravel's Bolero in its ability to hypnotise the listener, and that the work goes on to end with a remarkably positive finale which sits uneasily in a commemoration of the siege of Leningrad. Paavo Järvi treats this work, as he seems to treat everything he does these days, as a wholly worthwhile use of your time. Despite the huge number of alternative recordings this goes right up into the first division on grounds of interpretative coherence, playing and recording. Järvi's opening tempo is brisk, making the rapid slowdown to a more pensive mood more noticeable. This is just the first of many examples of interventions which emphasise the dramatic contrasts. The lovely solo violin passage drops away to a whisper just before the quietest of side-drum entries draws one into the next stage. The long crescendo is given emphatic rhythmic drive by the basses — placed tellingly behind the first violins and cellos on the left of the soundstage. By the time Shostakovich's filmic music has reached its climax the effect has become very disturbing — exactly as it should be. The slow and quiet coda comes as much needed balm to the ears. The moderato second movement has a gentle lilting rhythm but the undercurrent is appropriately pensive. The string groups are beautifully delineated in this detailed recording and I found myself focusing more intently than usual on this part of the symphony. The raucous woodwind and brass trio section is strikingly angular completing as fine a performance of this movement as I've heard. The Adagio also benefits from the clarity of both Järvi's conducting and the engineers' attention to detail. The movement is emotionally complex. So intense is the performance I wonder if it was the product of a single take, though that seems unlikely in this age of multiple edits. In the Allegro Finale I thought the rear channels were too prominent but the front stage picture was not disturbed. Much of the first part of this movement has a sense of something emerging. It is, in true symphonic manner, a preparation for what is to come, parts are being assembled. Järvi keeps a strong line through to the massive celebratory coda so that the end is extremely impressive.

I cannot imagine a better recording of this Seventh Symphony arriving any time soon. Järvi, the RNO and the Polyhymnia recording team are to be congratulated.

A tiny note about the 'Free Album' voucher offered with this and other current Pentatone issues: why offer a standard 16bit/44kHz CD download free to the purchaser of a high-resolution multichannel SACD? Surely such a customer is much more likely to be interested in at least a Premium Quality FLAC file 24bit/96kHz multichannel download. That would be an offer worth taking up. For me this 'offer' is a piece of redundant cardboard.
Dave Billinge

Previous review: Dan Morgan (Recording of the Month)